Interview Chawki Jaballi “The opportunities of the AfCFTA for Tunisia will be numerous”
Tunisia is a diversified economy. The country signed treaties and joined Comesa, tried to trade more with ECOWAS or ECAC, in vain. Today, as a member of the AfCFTA, it plans to quintuple its trade with the rest of the continent, until then to a ceiling of less than 2.5% of the total. Upstream, above all government support, but also the willingness of operators to conquer new outlets in this area of 1.2 billion consumers. Chawki Jaballi, Director of Cooperation with African Countries and the African Union, Ministry of Trade and Export Development, defends all of this, among others, in this interview.
Before talking about challenges, what are the opportunities for the Tunisian platform?
The opportunities of the AfCFTA for Tunisia will be numerous. Indeed, in a study to assess the potential impact of this new zone on African countries, the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) considers that the North African region and in particular Tunisia would be among the areas which will have to benefit the most from this agreement. The average growth rate of intra-African trade for the North African region would be 25% while this average would be only 20% at the continental level.
For Tunisia, an increase in exports to Africa is expected ranging from 26% to 54%, i.e. the highest rate compared to other countries in the region (Egypt: between 21% and 30% ; Morocco: between 33% and 40%; Algeria and Libya: between 8% and 11%).
At the sectoral level, it is estimated that industrial exports will grow at 74%, which is more than the rate forecast for all of Africa, which would be 66%. Agricultural and energy exports would be 21% and 5% respectively.
On the other hand, the impact of the liberalization of trade in goods on customs revenues would be 9% at the continental level but only 2.5% for North Africa.
However, we remain cautious because the practical side is always worrying. It is not always easy to implement the commitments made. Having said that, I remain optimistic because if we look at the negotiation period will not have been that long in the end. It started in 2016, then we ended up in 2018 in Kigali with 44 signatures, and finally two years later, it comes into force…. Especially since the trade started this year. There are still technical difficulties of implementation, a dozen countries have prepared their tariff offer, but there are still technical points to be resolved, in addition to the mobility issues generated by the pandemic, even if at the political level we are much more advanced. Governments are pushing us forward on this file, but there are still technical difficulties to finalize.
Concretely, where is Tunisia in terms of membership of the AfCFTA? Is Tunisia ready to exchange with its peers on the continent?
On the legal level, Tunisia has actively participated in the negotiations of the AfCFTA since their official launch in 2016. It was among the first 44 signatory countries of the agreement establishing the AfCFTA during the extraordinary summit of the Union. Which was held in Kigali on March 21, 2018. The agreement was ratified by the ARP on July 22, 2020 and the instrument of ratification was deposited with the African Union Commission on November 27, 2020 rendering Tunisia officially the 31st State Party to the AfCFTA.
On the technical level, the process of finalizing the tariff offer is coming to an end with the preparation of the three lists of products according to the liberalization modalities agreed during the negotiations, namely the list of non-sensitive products (90% of tariff lines) ; the list of sensitive products (7% of tariff lines); and the list of excluded products (3% of tariff lines).
The methodology adopted is based on the involvement of all stakeholders from the public and private sectors. It consists, first of all, in proposing draft lists for industrial, agricultural and craft products under the supervision of the Ministries of Industry, Agriculture and Tourism and in consultation with the professions. Then, a refining operation would harmonize the lists according to pre-established thresholds. The list of non-sensitive products should be notified to the African Union once validated by the Government after consultation with professional organizations.
For the liberalization of trade in services, a working group has been established to conduct the preparation of the national offer. This group has benefited from a number of capacity building programs on the offer and request preparation approach and should be able to finalize the offers soon.
But behind the challenges, we create opportunities.
You said, Tunisia has some expertise in the field of services. A pool of skills also lacking in the continent. Why is trade with Africa not so developed?
The problems are related to infrastructure, BNTs, visas and the mobility of business people. I will also add the question of financing and export insurance … Then, if a Tunisian company does not manage to benefit from the accompanying measures, even with the ZLECAf it will not develop, not only on the elimination of tariff barriers
If we take the example of COMESA. After accession, there was positive growth in exports to COMESA countries, compared to the general downward trend in global trade, despite the effects of the Covid. Even though this is still premature, it is a positive aspect, but relatively weak because problems persist.
More generally, the objective is to increase the volume of trade with Africa to 10% of all foreign trade, against barely 2.4%.
Are Tunisian companies ready?
I think that at the level of Tunisian companies, those that export to Europe, to Africa, will have fewer constraints given the AfCFTA, especially in terms of entry standards or tariff measures. On the other hand, it is at the level of their internal preparation that work needs to be done. Emphasis should be placed on their ability to export, to trade … These are not major competitive constraints with other African countries. Compared to other African countries, Tunisia has a diversified economy. There is not much to fear from Tunisian companies. The difficulties are to be found in their internal perception, the desire to go to these markets, to conquer new outlets. We will have to be more flexible.
In general, I think that Tunisia’s cooperation dynamic with the AU has accelerated over the period 2015, 2016, notably with membership of Comesa. Today we are full members of AfCFTA. We tried to approach ECOWAS, ECAC too. This is a dynamic that is very apparent lately, even if the results on the ground are not at the expected level, but compared to the past, we are well placed to fully benefit from a mutually dynamic Tunisian-African cooperation. The future is here! A global strategy, which integrates the issues of financial support, logistics, Branding, visas, human mobility … is required!
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